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Breaking the ‘Grippe’: Wheeling During The 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic

Photos provided by Ohio County Public Library Archives A postcard of Ohio Valley General Hospital, affectionately known as the “City Hospital.”

Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a six-day series about the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic in Wheeling. It was written and researched by Sean P. Duffy and Erin Rothenbuehler of Archiving Wheeling (archivingwheeling.org), a collaborative community project of the Ohio County Public Library in Wheeling.

WHEELING — Schools were closed. So were restaurants, amusement parks, theatres, movie houses, and even the public library. Hotels sat empty. Meetings, parties, and society events were canceled. Sporting events postponed. People were told to stay in their homes. Even church services were canceled.

Sound familiar?

We’ve been here before, more than a century ago, when the “Spanish Influenza,” aka the “Spanish Flu,” aka the “Grippe,” struck Wheeling and the rest of the planet in the fall of 1918.

The 1918 Spanish Influenza global pandemic caused by the H1N1 virus of avian origin (thus, “bird flu”) was one of the worst in human history. According to the CDC, more than 500 million people worldwide became infected, at least 50 million of whom died (some estimates soar to nearly twice that number). Deaths in the United States surpassed 675,000, more than those caused by the American Civil War. Unlike with COVID-19, at least as far as we know at this point, H1N1 was fairly lethal to all age groups.

In Wheeling, two hospitals did the work. Affectionately known as the “City Hospital”, Ohio Valley General Hospital (OVGH), took the lead, admitting influenza patients immediately following the first diagnosed Wheeling case on October 2.

According to its own records, Wheeling Hospital treated 567 people with influenza in 1918, 94 of whom died. In fact, the obituary columns of the local newspapers during the fall of 1918 were daily filled with victims of pneumonia, which (as with COVID-19) was the proximate cause of death as the H1N1 virus also aggressively attacked victims’ lungs.

The problem was exacerbated, of course, because the onset of the pandemic occurred during the First World War. It was first detected on American shores among military trainees in the spring of 1918 (the U.S. having declared war on Germany in April 1917, hurriedly initiating a draft and sending trainees to camps in order to expedite entry into the European conflict).

U.S. Army training camps — like Camp Lee at Petersburg, Virginia, where the majority of Wheeling draftees were trained — with thousands of young, would-be soldiers jammed together in barracks, cafeterias, and latrines, became hotbeds for the spread of the virus on American soil. And infected men who, having no symptoms, traveled home on furlough, then unwittingly transmitted the virus to friends and family. Even as the epidemic appeared to have peaked in military camps, it spread rapidly among the civilian population, reaching 43 states (of 48 at the time) by Oct. 2. But by the end of the month, new cases were on the rise at the camps as the influx of new trainees continued.

On October 5, the grim news broke of several influenza deaths among Wheeling’s own military personnel at training camps. In addition to nurse Alice Young (see below), Warwood’s Pvt. J. William Bauman and South Wheeling’s Donald Shipley and James Yates died at Camp Lee, while Pvt. Percy Hannan, also from South Wheeling, passed at Camp Meade. Four days later three more Wheeling men succumbed, including Raphael Fawcett at Camp Dix, New Jersey, William L. Mikels of Warwood at Camp Meade, and Robert F. Davis at Ft. Oglethorpe, Georgia.

But the focus soon shifted to the home front.

THE PANDEMIC GRIPS WHEELING

According to the West Virginia State Health Department, the pandemic hit the state hard in fall of 1918: “Late in September the so-called Spanish influenza appeared in the eastern end of the state, and spread with surprising rapidity until every part of the state was in the throes of a virulent epidemic…”

We know from the records of Ohio Valley General Hospital that the first case was diagnosed in Wheeling on October 2, 1918.

A few days later on October 6, Wheeling’s City Council was called to a special session “for the purpose of taking action on the threatened epidemic of Spanish Influenza,” during which an order was proposed by Dr. M. B. Williams, Health Commissioner for the City. The order read:

“Epidemic Influenza has reached Wheeling, and threatens to become epidemic. We now have eleven cases and already one death. Eight of these in the past twelve hours.

In the opinion of Surgeon General Rupert Blue of the United States Public Health Service, and also in the opinion of All Public Health Authorities, the only way to stop the spread of Influenza is to close churches, schools, theatres, and public institutions in every community where the epidemic has developed.

The spread of Epidemic Influenza in other states has shown that public gatherings and places where large numbers of people are likely to congregate, play important parts in the dissemination of the disease, and as the disease at this time shows definite site signs of assuming serious proportions, drastic measures must be taken at once.

Therefore by the authority vested in me as Health Commissioner of the City of Wheeling under Section 4 of the Health Ordinance, I hereby order the immediate closure of all places of public entertainment, such as theatres, moving picture establishments and pool rooms, also all schools, churches, Sunday schools, and other public institutions where people congregate in numbers. All meetings of every description both indoors and out, are prohibited.

All funerals must be private, meaning that they shall be limited to the fewest possible persons. Every person is requested to use the street cars as little as possible, walking whenever the distance is not too great. Unnecessary calls to stores for shopping purposes should not be made. Hospitals are instructed to stop all visits to patients except relatives.

The Health Department wishes to repeat its warning issued in the past few days: Don’t sneeze – Don’t cough – Don’t spit. If absolutely necessary use your handkerchief. Don’t crowd. When sick call your physician and go to bed…

These orders are to become effective immediately and remain in force until further notice from this Department.

M. B. Williams, M. D. Health Commissioner.”

Council approved the order and a further motion was carried that “the Chief of Police be instructed to vigorously enforce the anti-spitting ordinance and that he also be instructed to arrest and prosecute any violators.”

At that point, Dr. Williams became the busiest man in town. His daily report throughout October typically included dozens of new cases of influenza and the deadly pneumonia it facilitated. By October 19th, nearly 200 cases and nine deaths had been reported in town. Many died quickly after a “brief illness.”

People were advised to seek treatment if they exhibited any early “cold-like” symptoms, which included “a sharp rise in temperature to 103 to 104 degrees, headache, pain in the back, throat feeling dry or sore.” Flu survivors described the early stages of the disease as sounding like “a concrete mixer is operating in one of the ears.” The said ear would later become very sore.

Wheeling’s neighboring river towns were not exempt. Brooke County’s Board of Health issued a shutdown of schools, poolrooms, lodges, churches, and all public gatherings on October 15. Bridgeport, Ohio officials reported the city’s first cases on October 17 and admitted that the virus had probably infiltrated much earlier. “Keep the Crowd Moving” was the adopted slogan in Bellaire as the city’s board of health closed schools, churches, theatres, and saloons on October 25th. By Halloween morning, Moundsville, WV reported a total of 104 cases.

One of the most distressing local cases involved the Baker family of Lind Street. All six of the family’s children, along with their mother, were stricken with the dreaded influenza and admitted to OVGH, even as the patriarch lay bedridden at home in critical condition with Bright’s disease (a kidney disorder). Six-year-old Virginia, 16-month-old Joseph, and 4-year-old Ruth eventually succumbed. A fundraising effort led by the Wheeling newspapers collected $1300 for the destitute family.

The heartbreaking specter of child funerals (including a double one at the Baker home) haunted the obituary page almost daily.

Child Dies of Spanish Influenza: The remains of the twelve year old son of Louis Evempolis of Market street arrived in the city yesterday afternoon. The boy died of Spanish Influenza at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Tuesday afternoon, where he had been confined for some time, undergoing treatment. The funeral will be held this afternoon from the family residence and interment will be made in Greenwood cemetery.

The series continues Monday.

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